A question on the Composers Forum has put me onto the topic of musical time.

In the mid-20th century, a trend arose in which composers began notating the passage of musical time in seconds. Typically, the score was a grid in which musical events were arranged spatially against an axis showing the passage of clock time. In this way, composers were able to liberate musical events from the tyranny of the bar line, meter, and rhythm.

The result was often music that was disorienting, as listeners had little or no physical connection to the passage of time within the piece. This sense of disorientation could be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the listener, the piece, and the performance. In the best circumstances, listeners were swept away by the gestures themselves, without regard to how they relate to an articulated grid.

Before the mid-20th century, musical time had almost always been tied to a pulse – a more-or-less regular succession of beats that were directly and audibly connected to the shapes and pacing of each musical event. And, indeed, most music since has still used some form of pulse.

Don’t let anyone tell you that because one way is old and the other way is new, or one way is common and the other is unusual, either one is inherently superior to the other. They are both valid techniques, or at least they are as valid as the skills of the composer can make them.

Having said that, I have to admit I am not a fan of measuring musical time with minutes and seconds. Sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour – these are arbitrary, if convenient, ways to incrementalize the passage of time. They don’t have a concrete relationship to real time, or even perceived time — and perceived time is one of the special aptitudes of music. When music passes in audible pulses, we inevitably compare it with our own bodily pulses – the standard through which we measure time, consciously or unconsciously. A musical pulse that outstrips our heart rates feels fast; if the musical pulse is slower than our heart rates, we perceive it as slow. Acceleration in music mimics the presence of adrenaline; deceleration resonates with relaxation and meditation.

And, of course, musical pulse doesn’t just imitate our physical states, it can influence us very powerfully on a visceral level.

Clock time, on the other hand, is a cerebral construct – its use in music can tend to emphasize the cerebral end of musical comprehension. The results often foster an out-of-body listening experience – an experience that many composers (occasionally including me) strive for.

More often I like my music to hit me in all of my most sensitive spots: viscerally, temporally, intellectually, experientially, aesthetically, emotionally. The audible organization of rhythms into beats, beats into meters, meters into phrases and phrases into forms creates a layered artistic experience that carves me up and sews me back together like nothing else I know.

Leave a Reply